Headlines matter. Headlines matter. Headlines matter.
At some point, every organization has a torrid affair with SEO. Improving search engine optimization becomes an all-consuming obsession.
In no small way, SEO is about creating and labeling content, whether through headlines, meta tags, etc., so it is more easily found on the web. What could go wrong?
Here’s what happened when I was recently Senior Communications Writer and then Editorial Director at University of California, Hastings College of the Law. The head of COMMS, as we called it, took me to an SEO workshop. Within the first half hour, I was completely hooked. I loved looking through analytics to find the right words for headlines and subheds to boost our search results. I was addicted, the same way some people love Sudoku and crossword puzzles.
But here’s what happened. Though I’ve written headlines for decades, my new, SEO-friendly ones weren’t very good. They contained no proper nouns, no adjectives or adverbs (turns out they aren’t all that helpful except in the porn industry). The right noun or verb were nixed in favor search-friendly words. More troubling, the headlines often didn’t describe the topic of the piece as accurately as it could. For example, a program designed to help women and children in immigration proceedings would only mention children because children trend higher in interest than women—even if children made up the minority of the client base of the program.
Simply put, these headlines weren’t very interesting and didn’t promote clickthroughs. Clickthroughs and shares are vital to SEO. Worse, our metrics showed people weren’t accessing and reading the content we were trying to push out. We quickly abandoned our SEO-myopic campaign.
The Takeaway: Good Headlines (Still) Matter
We learned our lesson and went back to writing the most interesting headlines and deks we could. Guess what happened? Our internal and external targets were immediately more engaged with our content. We satisfied internal clients who couldn’t understand why their program wasn’t mentioned in the hed or dek. It allowed us to use compelling quotes in our subheds, prompting a more emotional relationship with our content. And we were able to lure in readers we were losing.
Attract, Inspire, Engage
Now that you’re not addicted to SEO headlines, here’s how to write the best headline for a piece.
1. Attract. You are writing a client alert about the same 9th Circuit decision 20 other law firms are. Most firms will strive to write the most complete, accurate headline possible. So should you? Not necessarily. Given the lightning pace of social media, your readers have likely already seen a mention of the decision. They know what’s coming. Counter this by standing out in the crowd. Attract attention. The easiest way to do this is to quote even one word from the decision. Consider these headlines.
“9th Circuit Upholds Affirmative Action Factors in College Applications”
“Court: ‘Insidious’ Discrimination Can Be Ameliorated by Affirmative Action”
The first headline is so accurate I don’t even need to read the content. And if that’s the case, just let your readers get the headlines on Twitter.
The second, however, lures me into the piece to learn more. In-house employment attorneys or HR directors will want to read this even if they don’t run universities, because they can tell the 9th Circuit has strong feelings on the topic.
2. Inspire. I want to read this piece. Why? Because it sounds like there’s some drama there that will momentarily distract me from the drama down the hall. And I could really use that right now. And the use of the word “insidious” tells me just how strongly at least two judges feel about this issue. That elevates it to my “must read” list. The headline also tells me that the law firm actually read the entire decision, rather than prepping a piece based on the lower court decision and briefs and slapping a summary on top of it.
3. Engage. Because this headline tells readers it is different from the 20 other alerts in their inbox, it is more likely to be shared. People want to share sharp content, not just useful content. Put your share buttons right next to the headline.
Follow through on your great headline with at least one or two paragraphs in the piece that close the deal. Include the “insidious” sentence. Go out on a limb and say, if accurate, that it’s one of the strongest endorsement of affirmative action to date.
Ask your content-conservative CMO or practice group partner for a three-months free rein. Then show them the metrics to prove your success.
[Susan Kostal is an editor, writer, business development strategist and media coach with over 25 years experience on the beat and in the C-suite. Susan's expertise includes legal industry trends, marketing, communications, and public relations.]